In May of 2013, I had the opportunity to see John Williams conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He played his “greatest hits,” some of which were from movies I love (INDIANA JONES), movies I loathe (HARRY POTTER), and movies I’m generally indifferent toward (LINCOLN). Regardless of the film in question, no one can deny the majesty of these compositions, all of which were born of one man’s genius, and supplemented by the talent of countless musicians.
But it was STAR WARS I was waiting for; indeed, it was STAR WARS that everyone was waiting for. The selections listed in the program were not surprisingly poised to close out a night of music, each one highlighting iconic moments from the Original Trilogy. Not surprisingly, there were no Prequel themes in the queue; more on this later.
We all sat and enjoyed memorable and wonderfully hummable tunes from films like E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, but we all knew this was just an appetizer. In the case of Williams, an “appetizer” is a main course from any other composer.
I’m going to go ahead and tell you what you already know: that John Williams is one of our last living legends, and his influence on film is every bit as artistically profound as that of George Lucas himself. For a classical musician to write even one of Williams’ many themes would be comparable to me pulling out the guitar and coming up with the least entry in the Lennon-McCartney songbook. Anyone who watches a film scored by John Williams knows there are many, many themes varying from character to character, situation to situation, scene to scene. The sheer enormity of his output is staggering, and his versatility is unparalleled.
In the case of STAR WARS, so much of what we identify with the films is derived from the music itself. Everyone can hum the main theme: if you don’t believe me, ask a random person on the street. You don’t have to be a fan of the series to know the music; it’s part of the cultural language in the same way “Hound Dog” or “American Pie” have become. My then-three year-old would routinely wake me up in the morning, loudly belting out the main series theme at the top of his lungs; my mother-in-law saw a video of him singing it and knew what it was, and I’m not sure she’s even seen a STAR WARS movie all the way through.
Everyone knows the music. You know the music. You’re hearing it in your mind right now as you read this, the same way I’m hearing it as I type.
To imagine STAR WARS without Wiliiams’ score is impossible. So much of the sense of fun and adventure the series offers is established by the themes: big and brassy, emotional and evocative, romantic and timeless. The first teaser trailer released in 1976 served up bite-sized samples from the film without the missing aural ingredient, and the difference is immediately noticeable. One has only to look at other science fiction films of the era to see just how childish and corny STAR WARS might have seemed had audience temperament been different; viewers were accustomed to synth and electronic sounds in their science fiction. While Kubrick had used classical musical in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, this was atypical of standard genre conventions, per that director’s temperament. Lucas chose to walk a similar path, and to employ a composer who would give STAR WARS its swashbuckling flavor.
Trying to select a favorite theme from even one film in the series is an exercise in futility. Certainly the most iconic composition is the one that has opened every episode since 1977, with its soaring melodies departing into new motifs with each successive paragraph in the text scroll, and ultimately coming back around again. Even the then-mothballed 20th Century Fox fanfare (written not by Williams himself but by Alfred Newman decades earlier) has become synonymous with STAR WARS rather than the studio itself. The standard series opening — depicting the title flying backward through space, followed by the episode title and backstory, then ending with a tilt-down reveal of the current action — is at least fifty percent reliant upon the score. Lucas has never received enough credit for devising this sequence, which takes elements of the serials that inspired him and creates something new and bold and instantly iconic; but swap out the music for something -- anything -- else, and it becomes very different. It becomes lesser.
I’m not going to write a lengthy music theory article here; the work of John Williams deserves far more attention than this space allows. We’ll keep this brief.
STAR WARS was the first, and in it we heard most of the themes that Williams would revisit throughout the saga. It’s also the score that most betrays Williams’s background in jazz, fusing it with adventure themes and western-derived trumpet sections. EMPIRE added romantic string elements to underline the love story aspect, as well as for “The Imperial March” (probably the second-most recognizable piece of music from the franchise), and the fantasy-derived “Yoda’s Theme.” With JEDI, the playful “March of the Ewoks” and Emperor-centric choral elements demonstrated the versatility of the composer, as well as the films themselves.
THE PHANTOM MENACE revisited this aural universe for the first time in sixteen years, introducing as many new elements as appeared in EMPIRE or JEDI. It’s not only the most “complete” film in the Prequel Trilogy, it’s also the only one of the three to have a score written specifically to time and synch with the onscreen action in its entirety. I never loved “Duel of the Fates” the way so many others did -- I felt it was too choral, and seemed out of step with what we’d established musically for STAR WARS; indeed, the track’s enormous popularity led to an abundance of choir throughout the following films. This element had been understated for the Sith themes in JEDI, and really only came to the forefront during Luke’s final confrontation with Vader. In MENACE, CLONES, and SITH, its increased prominence seemed more in step with what Williams was writing concurrently for HARRY POTTER, and the work of his contemporary, Howard Shore, in THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
My favorite stuff from MENACE was the Trade Federation music, which evoked classic STAR WARS, as well as INDIANA JONES. There were other great flourishes — such as the Coruscant arrival — that highlighted Williams’ strength: namely, his ability to dash a bit of seasoning over a smattering of shots and transform them into something greater. It’s like chewing an incredibly delicious piece of steak, swallowing it, and moving on to the grilled asparagus. A John Williams score is like a plate of perfectly-portioned meat and vegetables, many of the flavors recurring, others different, always complimenting and contrasting, with the sprinkles of garnish adding flourish. It’s a feast that leaves you wanting more.
ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH are the weakest efforts. I’ve offered my reasons for disliking the films on a narrative level, but the disservice they do Williams only compounds the films’ issues. In both cases, the final edits were in so great a state of flux that it was impossible for Williams to write finished score directly timed to locked visuals. Much of what he composed was hacked to pieces in a frantic copy/paste effort to match the edit. Most egregiously, music from MENACE -- again, the only “complete” score of the three -- was re-tracked, and dropped over moments that had nothing thematically in common with the original placement (SEE: Podrace music used during the arena battle in CLONES, et al.). The films were sloppy and whipped together; so were their scores. As such, both CLONES and SITH feature only one new major theme each (“Across the Stars”* and “Battle of the Heroes,” respectively); and as strong as either might be, had they appeared in the Original Trilogy instead, they’d be simply one of a dozen new cues as instantly memorable. There’s a lot to be said for the necessity of inspiration.
One major complaint I’ve heard for THE FORCE AWAKENS is that Williams was “phoning it in.” I disagree. As is my habit, I had the soundtrack on constant rotation during its release, and found its new motifs as memorable as anything heard in the previous installments. “Rey’s Theme,” as well as the music associated with Kylo Ren and the First Order, are classic John Williams, as is the chase music used in the Nima Outpost attack, to say nothing of the bombastic “March of the Resistance”. Most notable is the final cue, “The Jedi Steps,” and I defy anyone to consider this a lesser contribution, particularly given the way it heightens the film’s reveal of Luke Skywalker.
Meanwhile, THE LAST JEDI offers little new music besides a theme for Rose, which is unfortunate because 1) it’s a theme for Rose; 2) it feels more INDIANA JONES than STAR WARS; and 3) it’s a theme for Rose.
It’s undeniable that Williams is in his final years. It’s now more or less confirmed that he’s planning to pass the torch following THE RISE OF SKYWALKER; the name most frequently mentioned as a possible successor is Thomas Newman, grandson of the composer who wrote that iconic 20th Century Fox fanfare that Williams himself forever linked to STAR WARS. ROGUE ONE and SOLO have already given us the first non-Williams STAR WARS scores**, and while it’s cool to hear familiar themes re-imagined by the next generation of musicians, it’s hard not to worry that someday we’ll be getting the STAR WARS equivalent of Credence Clearwater Revisited.
When I saw Williams conduct the BSO that May evening in 2013, it was an experience that I cannot adequately describe in the space provided. Like everyone else, I was waiting for the STAR WARS cues, which, as I said, were saved for the ending; and when the time finally came, there was no introduction, but simply a long, profound silence. Williams raised his baton and held it there, suspended. The room drew a breath in time with his movement. The silence was deafening.
And then, the old man lunged, as if thirty years had fallen from his frame, and the orchestra responded with a low, insidious sound: that first dark note sending an electric chill up the spine, through the arms, then released from each finger. That shudder was like an orgasm.
We were hearing “The Imperial March.” John Williams was conducting it. A genius was sharing his creation. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
When we hear these themes, we are in the presence of greatness in our own time.
* As lush and beautiful as “Across the Stars” may be, it dubiously recycles elements from David Grusin’s main theme for ON GOLDEN POND. Once you hear it, you cannot un-hear it. 2:21 - 2:58
** Unless you count CLONE WARS, which apparently everyone does except me, and the few billion people who don’t participate in AICN talkbacks.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)